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The future of warfare
THE nature of war has never changed. From the ancient Romans to conflicts around the world today being fought by the most connected soldiers and the smartest bombs, the same story has played out over centuries of division along partisan and ideological lines. A kinetic means to a political end. Soldiers fight each other on battlefields "over there", until one side claims victory over the vanquished, and a new chapter in human history is written. But the wars of today (and tomorrow) will look very different from those that took place in the past century. Increasingly waged in cyberspace, via armies of hackers, wars will be fought behind the scenes as much as on a physical front. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) will drive the use of robotics and automation, a shift which leading defence developers are starting to pour money into.
Giving autonomous abilities to military equipment via the use of AI is being touted as one of the biggest game-changers in future conflicts.
A report by Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs asserts that advances in machine learning and AI represent a turning point in the use of automation in warfare. "The use of robotic and autonomous systems in both warfare and the commercial sector is poised to increase dramatically," the authors of the report argue.
Leading defence developers in China, Europe and the United States are already there, actively pursuing emerging technologies. "Global defence companies are investing more in high-capability unmanned air, ground, and sea vehicles that not just perform surveillance as a standalone unit, but are also capable of conducting the full spectrum of missions alongside major frontline assets as part of a battle force in that regard," says Kelvin Wong, weapons and equipment editor at defence publication Jane's, part of global information provider IHS Markit.
In the United Kingdom, it has emerged that defence contractors are funding research at top engineering universities. Almost £40 million (S$74.3 million) was given in grants over the past three years towards developing next-generation military hardware, from advanced diagnostic systems to stealth drones.
Defence companies have also shown strong interest in leveraging intelligent systems - not just into their product portfolios, but also to streamline and enhance their own research and development (R&D) and production processes.
Mr Wong cites BAE Systems' new digital tools and development methodologies which push new efficiencies into advanced manufacturing, enabling engineers from across its vast R&D resources to collaboratively design a new product in a virtual environment, using intelligent systems to model complex and non-linear environments with a high degree of precision.
While there has yet to be widespread deployment of any sort of fully-autonomous weapons system, there is significant global effort in the R&D of autonomous systems.
Closer to home, Singapore Technologies Engineering's electronics arm has developed a family of unmanned surface vessels (USVs) christened Venus. The Venus 16 is being developed for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) as part of a wider effort to develop a fully unmanned mine countermeasure (MCM) force, according to Jane's.
The 16 metre-long craft is equipped with advanced sensors and software to automatically correct its course and speed to avoid collisions. So far, it has been deployed in trials to patrol Singapore's waters. The use of such USVs, the Singapore Ministry of Defence says, will allow the deployment of a smaller number of manned assets and sustain operations over longer periods.
ST Engineering is also developing high-tech gear, designed to "address the challenges of the modern battlefield".
ARIELE, or the Army Individual Eco-Lightweight Equipment system, equips soldiers with life-saving gear and various electronics to keep them cool and connected in the heat of battle.
Fit for a future soldier, the kit incorporates an intelligent heads-up system which uses augmented reality to improve a soldier's situational awareness, as well as lightweight armour that protects the user but doesn't hinder movement.
It contains a power cell - think of it as a large portable charger - which juices up all the electronics that the soldier is carrying.
The company recently showcased smart technologies at the Singapore Airshow 2018 in February. And it has set its sights firmly on the future, investing in firms involved in cybersecurity and autonomous robotics. To that end, it acquired Aethon, a US provider of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) with consumer applications.
"The acquisition has since allowed us to develop new applications based on a proven robotic solution for indoor applications for the healthcare, industrial and hospitality sectors," ST Engineering says in its annual report. It has also set up a US$150 million corporate venture capital unit to invest in "promising technology start-ups and early-stage companies", the company adds.
Singapore brokers upgraded ST Engineering stock to a "buy" rating in March and expect revenue to be boosted by the group's aerospace business and defence exports.
Among defence developers, special emphasis has been placed on improving machine learning techniques and using such techniques to allow robots to intelligently make decisions based on multiple sensor data streams.
"AI right now is invaluable in trying to help make sense of all that data. Data without proper treatment is probably more detrimental than helpful," Jane's Mr Wong says.
He envisions a scenario where an army has lost its command structure, and systems imbued with AI could take over and carry on fighting, tweaking plans on the fly.
"It's a giant chess match for a computer and depending on what scenario arises, it can instantly calculate and adapt. A human can't do that. That would be the kind of scenario I would see an AI taking over if you lose your command structure," he explains.
But the looming proliferation of AI has put many on edge, with aTerminator-type scenario a distinct possibility. Staff at tech giant Google recently signed a letter protesting the company's involvement in a Pentagon programme that "uses artificial intelligence to interpret video imagery", which could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes, according to a report on April 4 in The New York Times.
In the letter, addressed to chief executive Sundar Pichai, the writers said they "believe that Google should not be in the business of war", and asked that Google pull out of Project Maven, the Pentagon pilot, and announce a policy that it will not "ever build warfare technology".
Aside from giving well-funded and technologically-sophisticated militaries an edge, advanced tools are also being sold to hostile "non-state actors", a term used to describe groups not allied with any particular nation.
Groups like ISIS are capitalising on advanced tech by using remotely-controlled aerial drones in their military operations, which the Harvard report surmises will lead to them or other terrorist groups "likely (to) make increasing use of autonomous vehicles".
The report notes that "hostile non-state actors, including both criminals and terrorists, have made effective use of cyber tools for geographically dispersed activities that would be much more difficult to execute in the physical domain".
The cyber threat is real
In today's environment where information travels at the speed of light, where the ubiquitous smartphone can capture information anywhere, where online bots can spread misinformation, and emails routinely get hacked, war is being fought on a front which now permeates our daily lives without us giving much thought to it.
Many factors steer how warfare evolves, and new concepts will bring fresh challenges to the fight, says Jane's Mr Wong.
Hybrid warfare has materialised in Ukraine, where Russia has mobilised paramilitary or non-state actors and empowered them to achieve its political agenda.
Conventional capabilities and conventional arms and missiles still underpin that endeavour, "but the way of thinking about warfare is changing", Mr Wong adds.
The very fact that armed forces are more connected than ever leaves them susceptible to a cyberattack. "Right now, if you look at a networked force, the kind of technology underpinning that, like digitisation and connectivity, means that it's by default vulnerable to any developments in cyberspace," Mr Wong says.
"As military forces digitise and modernise and become more networked, the potential of attack from cyberspace increases, and so accelerates how military forces evolve to combat that."
On that front, Singapore has been stepping up its defences. In his 2016 Committee of Supply speech, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said that with the threat of hybrid warfare on the rise, cyberspace would become the next war front.
"Cyberattacks are integral parts of hybrid warfare," Dr Ng said then. "Adversaries can therefore cripple key operating systems of target countries, steal their state and people's secrets, and invade the hearts and minds of people, all without stepping foot onto their soil." Singapore, as a country with an open and connected economy, is "particularly susceptible to hybrid threats", he added.
On March 3, 2017, Singapore formalised its cyberdefences when Dr Ng announced that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) was developing a new capability to defend the nation from digital intrusions and threats.
Called the Defence Cyber Organisation, it will be staffed by some 2,600 personnel and made up of four formations - the operational response arm which is the Cyber Security Division, the Policy and Plans Directorate tasked with capability development, the Cyber Security Inspectorate to assess vulnerability, and the Cyber Defence Group.
The coalescing of Singapore's cyberdefences into one command shows how serious the SAF was taking cyberattacks, Mr Wong says.
"Not only that, you see the US setting up its own Cyber Command, all the way to the Joint level (a military command comprising at least two departments). You can also see how countries like China and Russia are exploiting gaps in Western militaries by taking down and infiltrating networks, degrading their ability to communicate or even introducing new challenges for them to overcome," he says.
The part that cyberdefences (or attacks) will play in future conflict will be much larger, consisting of confrontations in and out of cyberspace, cyberattacks on physical systems and processes controlling critical information infrastructure, information operations, and various forms of cyber exploitation, says Dr Michael Raska, assistant professor in the Military Transformations Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
The "weaponisation of social media" will also be a new tool in warfare, Dr Raska notes, as such effective apparatus provides avenues for both state and non-state actors to "seed ideas, deliver tailored information campaigns", and in doing so "influence perceptions of events or environment in real time".
"In other words, effective use of social media in conflicts will become as important as winning the military campaign," he adds.
The finances of fighting
Fighting on more fronts means spending more on defence, which nations have been doing over the past 20 years, according to defence expert Richard Bitzinger, who has written extensively on security and defence issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region and has worked for the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Global defence expenditure is estimated to increase by 3.3 per cent to US$1.67 trillion in 2018, according to IHS Markit, accelerated by US defence spending.
The increase in defence spending reflects improving economic conditions around the world, "coupled with a response to continuing instability in a number of key regions", says Fenella McGerty, principal analyst at IHS Markit's Jane's.
"However, defence spending remains lower in relation to GDP (gross domestic product) than at any time in the last 10 years," she points out, suggesting that recent growth mainly relates to improved economic and fiscal conditions in established markets.
Overall, global defence spending over the last decade has fallen to 2.2 per cent of GDP, from an average level of 2.7 per cent.
In Singapore, defence spending in fiscal year 2018 as laid out in the latest Budget rose to S$14.76 billion - making up around 19 per cent of the annual Budget - from about S$14.2 billion in FY2017, an increase of 3.9 per cent.
Presenting the defence budget, Dr Ng painted a picture of a prudent SAF, saying that despite the increasing gap between Singapore's spending compared to the rest of Asean, Singapore did not need a radical increase in its defence spending due to "steady investment" in the armed forces.
While Singapore's military budget has largely gained year on year, in real terms it has dipped as a percentage of GDP, mostly because the Republic has continued to enjoy overall strong growth, Mr Bitzinger says. "This means that the 'defence burden' in Singapore has actually grown less, while it has also been able to increase military expenditures," he explains.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, growth in 2017 slowed to its lowest rate since 2010, due to smaller increases in China and India and cuts to spending in South-east Asia.
However, the foundations remain in place for robust increases to return over the next two years, IHS Markit says, which expects the region to be behind the driving force behind long-term growth in global defence spending.
The US spends the most on its military in the world annually, with expenditure up 1.7 per cent from 2015 to 2016, to US$611 billion, according to data from Sipri. China's military expenditure was the second highest in 2016, increasing by 5.4 per cent to US$215 billion, which was a much lower rate of growth compared to previous years.
According to the latest data from Deloitte, budgets in the US, the UK, France, Japan, several Middle Eastern countries, and other nations are on the rise, with governments equipping their armed forces with modern weapons platforms and next-generation technologies, including cyber, intelligence gathering, defence electronics, and precision strike capabilities.
This comes after years of flat to falling revenues for the sector following the drawdown of large armed forces engaged in operations in the Middle East and a decline in spending by the US Department of Defense, the largest defence customer.
Defence budgets are expected to remain strong, with the US planning to step up spending significantly. Last month, the US announced it would ramp up defence spending by over US$60 billion to US$700 billion for fiscal 2018.
Despite the radical changes afoot, we still think about war in a very classical sense, something that happens "over there", fought by troops who return home after the fighting has ended. But with bigger and better tech, wars could soon be waged against unseen enemies, with untold consequences. Future conflict will be increasingly reliant on thinking machines, but if we ever need to fire a shot, it should be humans who have a finger on the trigger.